Holy Mother Church calls us together today in order that we may hear from Her lips the sad history of the fall of our first parents. This awful event implies the Passion and cruel Death of the Son of God made Man, Who has mercifully taken upon Himself to expiate this and every subsequent sin committed by Adam and us his children. It is of the utmost importance that we should understand the greatness of the remedy; we must therefore consider the grievousness of the wound inflicted. Formerly, the Church used to read in Her Matins of today that passage of the Book of Genesis, where Moses relates to all future generations, but in words of most impressive and sublime simplicity, how the first sin was brought into the world. In the present form of the Liturgy, the reading of this history of the fall is deferred until Wednesday, and the preceding days give us the account of the six days of creation.
...And the Lord God said to the woman: Why hast thou done this? And she answered: The serpent deceived me, and I did eat... And to Adam He said: Because thou hast hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat, cursed is the earth in thy work... In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return to the earth, out of which thou was taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return (Gen. 3).
Oh, terrible page of man's history! It alone explains to us our present position on the earth. It tells us what we are in the eyes of God, and how humbly we should comport ourselves before His Divine Majesty. It is good to make it the subject of our meditation this week. But now, let us profit by the Liturgy of this Sunday, which we call Septuagesima.
The Station for the Mass at Rome is in the church of St. Laurence outside the walls. The ancient liturgists observe the relation between the just Abel (whose being murdered by Cain is the subject of one of the Responsories of today's Matins), and the courageous Martyr, over whose tomb the Church of Rome commences Her Septuagesima.
The Introit describes the fears of death, wherewith Adam and his whole posterity are tormented, in consequence of sin. But in the midst of all this misery there is heard a cry of hope, for man is still permitted to ask mercy from his God. God gave man a promise, on the very day of his condemnation: the sinner needs but to confess his miseries, and the very Lord against Whom he sinned will become his Deliverer:
The groans of death surrounded me, and the sorrows of hell encompassed me; and in my affliction I called upon the Lord, and He heard my voice from His holy temple. I will love Thee, O Lord, my Strength; the Lord is my Firmament, my Refuge, and my Deliverer. (Ps. 17: 2-3)
In the Collect, the Church acknowledges that Her children justly suffer the chastisements which are the consequences of sin; but She beseeches Her Divine Lord to send them that mercy which will deliver them:
Mercifully hear, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the prayers of Thy people; that we who are justly afflicted for our sins, may be mercifully delivered for the glory of Thy Name. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ...
The Epistle is taken from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:
Brethren: Do you not know that those who run in a race, all indeed run, but one receives the prize? So run as to obtain it. And everyone in a contest abstains from all things—and they indeed to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable. I, therefore, so run as not without a purpose; I so fight as not beating the air; but I chastise my body and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps after preaching to others I myself should be rejected. For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized in Moses, in the cloud and in the sea. And all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink (for they drank from the spiritual rock which followed them, and the rock was Christ). Yet with most of them God was not well pleased. (9: 24-27; 10: 1-5)
These stirring words of the Apostle deepen the sentiments already produced in us by the sad recollections of which we are this day reminded. He tells us that this world is a race, wherein all must run; but that they alone win the prize, who run well. Let us, therefore, rid ourselves of everything that could impede us, and make us lose our crown. Let us not deceive ourselves: we are never sure, until we reach the goal. Is our conversion more solid that was St. Paul's? Are our works better done, or more meritorious, than were his? Yet he assures us that he was not without the fear that he might perhaps be lost; for this cause he chastised his body, and kept it in subjection to the spirit. Man, in his present state, has not the same will for all that is right and just, which Adam had before he sinned, and which, notwithstanding, he abused to his own ruin. We have a bias which inclines us to evil; so that our only means of keeping our ground is to sacrifice the flesh to the spirit. To many this doctrine is very harsh; hence, they are sure to fail; they will never win the prize. Like the Israelites spoken of by our Apostle, they will be left behind to die in the desert, and so lose the promised land. Yet they saw the same miracles that Josue and Caleb saw! So true is it that nothing can make a salutary impression on a heart which is obstinately bent on fixing all its happiness in the things of this present life; and though it is forced, each day, to own that they are vain, yet each day it returns to them, vainly but determinedly loving them.
The heart, on the contrary, that puts its trust in God, and mans itself to energy by the thought of the divine assistance being abundantly given to him that asks it, will not flag or faint in the race, and will win the heavenly prize. God's eye is unceasingly on all them that toil and suffer.
The Gospel is from the 20th Chapter of St. Matthew (1-16):
At that time Jesus spoke to His disciples this parable: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And having agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And about the third hour, he went out and saw others standing in the market place idle; and he said to them: 'Go you also into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is just.' So they went. And again he went out about the sixth, and about the ninth hour, and did as before. But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing about, and he said to them: 'Why do you stand here all day idle?' They said to him: 'Because no man has hired us.' He said to them: 'Go you also into the vineyard.' But when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward: 'Call the laborers, and pay them their wages, beginning from the last even to the first.' Now when they of the eleventh hour came, they received each a denarius. And when the first in their turn came, they thought that they would receive more; but they also received each his denarius. And on receiving it, they began to murmur against the householder, saying: 'These last have worked a single hour, and thou hast put them on a level with us, who have borne the burden of the day's heat.' But answering one of them, he said: 'Friend, I do thee no injustice; didst thou not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is thine and go; I choose to give to this last even as to thee. Have I not a right to do what I choose? Or art thou envious, because I am generous?' Even so the last shall be first, and the first last; for many are called, but few are chosen."
It is of importance that we should well understand this parable of the Gospel, and why the Church inserts it in today's Liturgy. Firstly then, let us recall to mind on what occasion our Savior spoke this parable, and what instruction He intended to convey by it to the Jews. He wishes to warn them of the fast approach of the day when their Law is to give way to the Christian Law; and He would prepare their minds against the jealousy and prejudice which might arise in them, at the thought that God was about to form a Covenant with the Gentiles. The vineyard is the Church in its various periods, from the beginning of the world to the time when God Himself dwelt among men, and formed all true believers into one visible and permanent society. The morning is the time from Adam to Noah; the third hour begins with Noah and ends with Abraham; the sixth hour includes the period which elapsed between Abraham and Moses; and lastly, the ninth hour opens with the age of the prophets, and closes with the birth of the Savior. The Messias came at the eleventh hour, when the world seemed to be at the decline of its day. Mercies unprecedented were reserved for this last period, during which salvation was to be given to the Gentiles by the preaching of the Apostles. It is by this mystery of mercy that our Savior rebukes the Jewish pride. By the selfish murmurings made against the householder by the early laborers, Our Lord signifies the indignation which the scribes and Pharisees would show at the Gentiles being adopted as God's children. Then He shows them how their jealousy would be chastised—Israel, that had labored before us, shall be rejected for their obduracy of heart, and we Gentiles, the last comers, shall be made first, for we shall be made members of that Catholic Church which is the Bride of the Son of God.
This is the interpretation of the parable given by St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great, and by the generality of the holy Fathers. But it conveys a second instruction, as we are assured by the two holy Doctors just named. It signifies the calling given by God to each of us individually, pressing us to labor, during this life, for the kingdom prepared for us. The morning is our childhood. The third hour is our youth. The sixth hour, which corresponds to midday, is adulthood. The eleventh hour, which immediately precedes sunset, is old age. The Householder calls His laborers at all these various hours. They must go that very hour. They that are called in the morning may not put off their starting for the vineyard, under pretext of going afterwards, when the Householder shall call them later on. Who has told them that they shall live to the eleventh hour? They that are called at the third hour may be dead at the sixth. God will call to the labors of the last hour such as shall be living when that hour comes; but, if we should die at midday, that last call will not avail us. Besides, God has not promised us a second call, if we excuse ourselves from the first.
The Church prays, in the Communion Antiphon, that man, having now been regenerated by the Bread of Heaven, may regain that likeness to his God which Adam received at his creation. The greater our misery, the stronger should be our hope in Him, Who descended to us that we might ascend to Him:
Make Thy face to shine upon Thy servant; save me in Thy mercy. Let me not be confounded, O Lord, for I have called upon Thee. (Ps. 30: 17-18)
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